China’s satellite transmits data 10x faster thanks to lasers

“It is the first ultra-high-speed satellite-to-ground optical communication test in China, and the single communication lasted for more than 100 seconds.”
Amal Jos Chacko
An artistic visualization of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration communicating over laser links.
An artistic visualization of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration communicating over laser links.


Changguang Satellite Technology, a State-owned enterprise based in the Jilin province of China, announced the achievement of a major milestone in space technology by successfully deploying laser-based high-speed communication on commercial satellites. This breakthrough has increased the speed of space-to-ground data transfer tenfold, reaching an impressive 10 gigabytes per second (Gbps). 

This advancement is made possible through lasers acting as data carriers, offering a much wider spectrum than traditional microwave technology. The deployment of this cutting-edge technology is expected to revolutionize ground communication with satellites.

Groundbreaking Results and Pros of Lasers

The successful test involved researchers from the Aerospace Information Research Institute (AIR), a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who set up the satellite-to-ground link using lasers. 

The ground-based team received laser signals emitted from the Jilin-1 MF02A04 satellite, part of the world's largest imaging satellite network, the Jilin-1 constellation. This constellation plays a crucial role in various sectors, including land resource surveys, urban planning, and disaster monitoring.

Li Yalin, leader of the ground system at AIR, explained the advantages of laser communication using an interesting analogy: "Using the common microwave at 375 MHz is like driving on a single lane, and the emerging [technology of a] higher 1.5 GHz microwave would be a four-lane road. Lasers, meanwhile, can accommodate hundreds or even thousands of lanes," he told South China Morning Post.

This vast improvement in bandwidth allows transmitting a high-definition movie in just one second, 10 to 1,000 times faster than current microwave communication methods.

Among the first set of images sent by the Jilin-1 transmitter to the Earth included a picture of the capital of Qatar, Doha.

Implications for the Future and China's Edge

The tests run using laser-based high-speed communication technology open up a world of possibilities. In addition to faster data transmission rates, lasers provide additional security owing to their strong anti-electromagnetic interference capabilities.

NASA teamed up with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last year to create the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system. Their efforts resulted in a downlink speed of 100 Gbps last June— a feat doubled this year.

"Laser communications is the missing link that will enable the science discoveries of the future," stated Beth Kreer, TBIRD project manager, explaining the significance of optical communications.

While NASA has also made progress in laser communication, their achievements were attained on a demonstration satellite, typically more powerful than those in commercial use. 

China's commercial satellite design and longer lifespan provide an edge in terms of practical application. The success of their recent space-to-ground laser communication experiment has set the stage for the subsequent large-scale application of 40 Gbps satellite-to-ground laser communication payloads.

The Jilin-1 constellation is positioned to become more dominant in satellite communication technology with plans to expand the constellation to 138 satellites this year and complete the second phase of construction by 2025 when it will boast a network of 300 satellites. 

This extensive coverage, combined with the system's powerful remote sensing capabilities, will generate a vast amount of data every day, fulfilling the growing demand for data transmission from satellite to ground and between satellites.

This article was written and edited by a human, with the assistance of Generative AI tools. Find out more about our policy on AI-powered writing here.

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